We almost didn’t include this Ghent day trip on our Belgium Itinerary. To begin with, Belgium was a side trip squeezed in between the Netherlands and Sweden. At first glance, it seemed like a tiny sleepy town, not much unlike Bruges, and since we were already spending a couple of days in Bruges, it seemed like a waste of time to visit Ghent as well. Thankfully it was halfway between Brussels and Bruges, which made it a convenient day trip from Brussels, and we’re glad we decided to pop over at the last minute. A word of caution though, this is going to be a long post! (It isn’t everyday we write everything we saw in one city in a single post!)
To make the most of the Ghent Day Trip, we decided to leave Brussels early in the morning. The short train ride to Ghent however, wasn’t anywhere near long enough to catch up on our sleep! From the main station, we took a tram into town, getting off all the way inside, at the Castle of the Counts. We first popped into the Ghent Tourism Office, to pick up our Ghent City Cards. We took a little while getting our bearings, because the Tourist Office was located within the most uncanny of places. Beneath the ornate gateway of the Old Fish Market! Looking down from his high perch, Neptune towered over Ghent’s parent’s – the two rivers Scheldt and Leie. Entering the Tourist Office, we found a wide table with nifty projections on them, of all the information we needed for this visit. Grabbing the Ghent City Card, we flipped through a list of museums and attractions (boat rides and more) where this card would work.
Ghent Day Trip Itinerary:
Castle of the Counts (Gravensteen)
We started our day of sightseeing on the Ghent Day Trip with a rather large yet barren-looking structure. There was something about the Gravensteen that just reminded me of Dracula, so it already had a rather ominous, almost haunted vibe in my head before I even got to it. We stepped through gigantic doors, and trudged up a steep incline into medieval Ghent. It was fun to scramble about what remains of this old fortress, but information about it was rather limited. From what we managed to gather, it had been built by Philip of Alsace during the crusades over an old 9th Century wooden castle. Within, were several exhibits of a favourite theme of mine across medieval Europe – torture exhibits. Just like we did in Montepulciano, I try to marvel at the sheer horror of these devices (much to Charles’ horror too!) whenever we chance upon them.
Another Medieval remnant, we walked across to the old Butchers Hall. A massive wooden structure built sans nails, this spot normally has meat hanging from the rafters. Unfortunately those had been taken down for a spot of repair and painting when we visited, so all we saw were slim ropes hanging down, with nothing on the ends. There’s a wonderful little deli with lots of local specialty produce and condiments (I tried dragging Charles in, for a shopping spree but he reminded me that this was just a Ghent Day Trip and we still had a long trip ahead, and many places we had yet to cart our luggage around).
From there, we walked out to Groentenmarkt Square, which was still rather sleepy at this early hour. We looked across the square at Himschoot an old iconic bakery which was just setting up shop. We looked across, hoping to sample a taste of the famous mustard, but sadly the Tierenteyn Verlent Mustard Shop was shut.
Cathedral of St. Bavo and the Ghent Altarpiece
We then proceeded with our main reason for this Ghent Day Trip. I’d heard stories of the famous Ghent Altarpiece in virtually every Holocaust movie and documentary I’ve seen (and I’ve seen more than my share). But that isn’t even this famed masterpiece’s only disappearance. The most stolen painting in the world, I couldn’t wait to see what was so incredible about this piece that made it the focus of several international scandals. From hiding it from iconoclasts who would have burnt it in 1566, to Napoleon claiming it as a war trophy in 1794, the Prussian King’s theft of it to Germany, a thief stole it back after it was returned by the treaty of Versailles in 1934. But, my favourite story by far is that involving the Monuments Men during World War II. Hitler pretty much had an entire army of people looting art from across Europe, first under the pretence of destroying (what they considered) tasteless modern art, then for his proposed museum in Austria, then to sell overseas and make money off it, and then for his personal collection (and a whole lot of it was pilfered off into the personal collections of his men). In this time, the panels of this painting have travelled across the world from the Vatican to the French Pyrenees, Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, and the famous Salt Mine where it was finally found by the Monuments Men and returned to St. Bavo’s. For me, it’s mysterious story hasn’t ended. The last panel “Just Judges” has been missing for over 80 years and I’m still hoping it will turn up someday.
I feel almost bad that I was so excited about one painting, completely ignoring the fact that it was within a monument just as important. As soon as we stepped into Ghent’s cathedral, we forgot all about Jan Van Eyck’s famous painting and were completely awed by the massive Gothic interiors. At the very centre was a large tree, it’s branches intertwined with a golden serpent carrying an apple in its mouth which was being snatched by a chubby cupid. We saw statues, carvings, beautiful little chapels along the back, art works by Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Van Eyck. Finally, at the very end, we saw a little room with a ticket booth guarding the masterpiece. Jan and Hubert Van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (the famous Ghent Altarpiece) stood behind a large glass case. This is a much talked about piece of art across the world, and there we were standing before all 15 by 11 feet of it. There are so many details and so much symbolism, it would take a lifetime to understand every piece of it, and if you’re up to the task, you can use this clever website that literally takes you Closer to Van Eyck.
House of Alijn
While we only walked past it, the House of Alijn is a sweet little museum with exhibits that show the evolution of Belgian lifestyle, rooms staged with household and decor items. It used to be a house for elderly people, so perhaps that explains the fixation with homes. We probably gave this one a skip as there’s only so many things you can do on a Ghent Day Trip.
St. Micheal’s Bridge
A beautiful old bridge, actually offered an equally beautiful view of Ghent. Below us, the water lapped gently on the stone. This was where the city had been born, at the meeting point of the two rivers – Scheldt and Leie. Rows of typical Flemish architecture sat on either side of the water and we enjoyed a little breather at this spot.
On our way, we passed a typical Belgian chocolaterie, and I saw a mound of a rather strange looking candy in the window. Little curved pyramids, that strangely, resembled, a nose! There are all sorts of romantic stories about the origin of Ghent’s famous candy, but the one I love the most is about a Doctor who was trying to find a way to increase the shelf life of medicinal syrups, and then discovered a way to make the surface hard, while the core remained gooey. Excited, I bought an entire packet and bit into one. Going by the face I made, Charles figured it wasn’t particularly delicious, so he tried to give it a skip. I of course insisted he try one, because, when in Ghent.. It reminded me of a disgusting local candy we used to buy as kids here in India, raspberry meets cough syrup. Ugh.
Translating to Friday Market Square, we knew we’d find it rather quiet since we weren’t there on a Friday. And sure enough, it was a beautiful, large space, with just a few people at the several cafes around the fringes. We were tempted to settle down as well, but this Ghent Day Trip wasn’t easy on time. We walked up to the statue in the centre, who stood valiant with his hand up in the air. This was Jacob van Artevelde, an ordinary businessman who by daring to negotiate with the English King to continue exporting wool to French-controlled Ghent during a conflict, saved the city of Ghent. In the corner, my typography obsessed eye caught a glimpse of an interesting sign over building. Ons Huis – House of the People was the socialist headquarters. Just then it began to rain and we ran for cover into a nearby street, trying to walk as close to the buildings as possible. And very soon found ourselves in Melbourne.
Werregaren Straat as it is technically named, immediately reminded us of Melbourne’s laneways. This narrow street was once a water drain, but has now been reserved for Ghent’s growing street artists. We found spray cans marking the scene of what isn’t considered a crime in this fascinating street – Graffiti.
Hoogpoort and City Hall
Emerging out of this very hip, 21st Century site, we were suddenly teleported back to the 16th Century. The City Hall’s facade facing us was as Gothic as it gets. Walking around the building we found another facade was suddenly very Neo-Renaissance. As we walked, we began panting. The road had begun to curve up, this was the “high street” where Ghent’s two rivers met.
We then found ourselves at the end of our Ghent Day Trip walk. Entering a large, busy square I imagined us standing here in the 14th Century. This would have been the centre of Ghent’s wool trade, and we would have had to weave our way through busy traders. Today however, I quickly stepped out of the way as a tram came hurtling down Cataloniëstraat, looking out at the Church of St. Nicholas and the Belfry. We decided to give these two a miss, as we were cold, tired and hungry. So we followed our nose (and TripAdvisor) to one of the most beautiful restaurants I’ve ever stepped into.
Lunch at Pakhuis
A quick search online, we discovered a restaurant whose pictures looking absolutely stunning. (After all, we eat first with our eyes, don’t we?) Stepping hesitantly into a very smelly, decrepit looking lane, wondering how or why a beautiful pricey restaurant would be tucked away in here. A set of revolving doors let us into a gigantic bird-cage meets glass house. We took in the busy, beautiful vibe of this warm restaurant which is a restored 19th century warehouse and settled down for a long leisurely meal of Salmon and Steak, accompanied of course by a glass of wine. The ambiance here was so beautiful, I’d recommend a Ghent Day Trip just to eat here.
Looking back, we did manage to pack quite a bit in on our Ghent Day Trip (and we were done by afternoon) It isn’t the typical picture perfect, fairytale town like Bruges, neither is it a busy slick city like Brussels, in fact it may seem rather unimportant today, but Ghent’s history as a powerful city is woven across the sites we discovered andwe’re so glad we ended up visiting Ghent.
This post was made possible by Visit Ghent. Opinions, as always are our own.